QUESTIONS about the status of the Muslim Uighur people in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region often arise, with Beijing usually dismissing such claims of abuse as ‘Western propaganda’. However, as a recently leaked trove of documents has highlighted, these allegations cannot be simply brushed under the carpet, and more clarity is needed from China about the Uighurs’ welfare. The documents, dubbed the Xinjiang Police Files, date back to 2017-18 and were reportedly hacked from police servers and delivered to various media outlets, including the BBC. What they detail is simply chilling. For example, as per the documents, police guards were ordered to shoot any ‘students’ trying to flee internment centres to death if they failed to heed warning shots. Moreover, even sick inmates were reportedly kept in handcuffs and shackles while being administered treatment. The photographs of inmates — ranging from teenagers to senior citizens — that are part of the leak are simply harrowing, showing haunting images, with some inmates in tears.
Similar reports of abuse of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s internment camps have emerged in the past. While China insists these are ‘schools’ for combating extremism where ‘students’ sign up voluntarily, the evidence suggests otherwise. Though it is true that China a few years ago did face a wave of violence in which Uighur separatists indulged in deadly mass knife attacks, Beijing’s reaction has been wholly disproportionate. Critics argue that the Chinese state has attempted to wipe out Uighur religious and cultural practices. While the West may indeed have a bone to pick with China in exposing such reported abuses, Beijing needs to look inward and realise that such harsh practices will not inculcate loyalty to the state, and may instead fuel separatist sentiment. In particular, Muslim states, which have largely remained silent on the issue, should use diplomatic channels to communicate their concerns about the Uighurs to China, and ensure that the community’s fundamental rights are protected and that they are free to practise their faith and cultural traditions.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2022